Pornography of Disability: American Able

Safe to say she loves her socks.

Jes Sache isn’t just a case study or an emblem of queer politics in Toronto. Even writing a blog post about her seems a bit problematic since I did not want to focus exclusively on her body. This is because Jes is not just a body waiting to be unpacked and explored in academic jargon with careful citations and sparks of hope. Jes is not a subject in a photo series. She’s a living woman and perhaps it’s time to move away from her body and examine her brain.

Jes Sache was just a regular poet, photographer, and pornographer in Toronto when she teamed up with her roommate Holly Norris and began satirizing the infamous sex oozing American Apparel advertisements in 2010. American Able was a part of the 2010 Contact Photography Festival and showcased throughout TTC monitors throughout the city. Sasche’s body became part of the inner-city underground landscape. It was her body, not her mind, that became the central theme of discussions.

If Jes’ body is a revolutionary step forward, then we’ve simultaneously taken two steps backwards into the same fascination and voyeurism of disability that is implicitly being critiqued. Considering Rosi Braidotti’s “Signs of Wonder and Traces of Doubt,” Jes’ body could fall into a new history of teratology (the science of monsters that examines scientific and social differences between normal and ‘abnormal’ bodies). But this simplification is equally discomforting as the pornography of disability that the was naturalized less than a century ago. Consider how freak shows are still deeply situated within the western collective imagination. The writing that focuses on Jes’ illness, Freeman-Sheldon syndrome, explicates the symptoms as a measure to reinforce preexisting normative constructions of the body. Reading about her visual difference only perpetuates the same assumptions; Jes is different.

I see Jes very differently. Since she is already openly in-love with her body and displays it in her own highly sexual terms, Jes’ monstrousness is hardly contained with her body. It is her mind which is truly grotesque, (which I use in the most complementary way,) since it openly displays and celebrates sexual excess. Jes is not only flirting with the camera to provoke a critique of American Apparel, she is a self-described pornographic subject. Her confidence in the pictures is not fixed. Her reality outside these photographs is equally sex positive and celebratory.

Jes is aware of our fascination with difference and the Other. She is so in touch with her own sexual desires that she mobilizes her difference to address the larger issues. Looking back to Rosi’s definition of teratology and the pornography of disability we are forced into a discussion of nature and culture: the tensions between the biological body and our general consensus of a ‘normal’ one. Advertisements are deeply invested in obscuring these lines and perpetuating the myth that normal bodies are white, thin, and flawless. A quick google image search of “American Apparel” makes millions off this mythology since it reinforces the fantasy that the half naked girls in their spreads are just your average girl interrupted by a photographer while she writhes on the floor in ecstasy. Sasche and Norris work towards calling the norm out as abnormal.

The success of American Able is not because Jes finally represents a honest and authentic average gal. She exemplifies the abnormal. Her image reinforces the forgotten myth in advertisements. The type of body you are supposed to look away from on the streets. The kind of person many avoid making eye contact with because the stereotypes about her fragility, vulnerability, and hatred of her own body. These are hardly truths but emotional judgments.

And this is precisely why I argue Jes’ body is not the central theme of her own work. Jes’ body contributes as much to her life as our own bodies shape our lived experiences. She is more like us than different. The only difference between us and Jes is a product of our pre-existing biases. Her queerness and erotic representations are playfully constructed to point to what really matters: our judgments and vulnerabilities.

Jes never shys away from difficult subject matter and self representation in her own work.

American Able specifically speaks to how the media renders certain people invisible. And truly, we need more mainstream examples of women and men who are confident and invite the more normative bodied of us NOT to look away. In fact, stare! Say hello.

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